Book Talk. Bankrupts and Userers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, by Sergei Antonov

Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Marshall D. Shulman Seminar Room (1219 International Affairs Building)

Please join us for a talk with Sergei Antonov (Department of History, Columbia University) for a talk about his new book, Bankrupts and Userers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Harvard University Press, October 2016).

As readers of classic Russian literature know, the nineteenth century was a time of pervasive financial anxiety. With incomes erratic and banks inadequate, Russians of all social castes were deeply enmeshed in networks of credit and debt. The necessity of borrowing and lending shaped perceptions of material and moral worth, as well as notions of social respectability and personal responsibility. Credit and debt were defining features of imperial Russia’s culture of property ownership. Sergei Antonov recreates this vanished world of borrowers, bankrupts, lenders, and loan sharks in imperial Russia from the reign of Nicholas I to the period of great social and political reforms of the 1860s.

Poring over a trove of previously unexamined records, Antonov gleans insights into the experiences of ordinary Russians, rich and poor, and shows how Russia’s informal but sprawling credit system helped cement connections among property owners across socioeconomic lines. Individuals of varying rank and wealth commonly borrowed from one another. Without a firm legal basis for formalizing debt relationships, obtaining a loan often hinged on subjective perceptions of trustworthiness and reputation. Even after joint-stock banks appeared in Russia in the 1860s, credit continued to operate through vast networks linked by word of mouth, as well as ties of kinship and community. Disputes over debt were common, and Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia offers close readings of legal cases to argue that Russian courts—usually thought to be underdeveloped in this era—provided an effective forum for defining and protecting private property interests.

Sergei Antonov is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University. He specializes in the history of modern Russia with broader interests in transnational histories of legal culture and capitalism, as well as violence and warfare. His first book, Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, will appear from Harvard University Press in October, 2016. The book is based on close readings of unpublished court cases capturing the culture of informal personal credit in Russia, and for the first time addresses such topics as credit networks, usury, debt imprisonment, and bankruptcy in nineteenth-century Russia. It also reassesses traditional views of the weakness of the rule of law in imperial Russia, arguing that even before the landmark court reform of 1864 the courts were reasonably efficient at delineating and enforcing private property rights. 

Antonov’s ongoing research focuses on crime and punishment in late imperial Russia. He is currently finishing two articles focusing on non-violent economic crimes such as forgery, embezzlement, and counterfeiting. He is also interested in the legal aspects of Russian serfdom, which is often mistakenly thought to be primarily an extra-legal mechanism. He is currently studying several categories of cases involving serfs (and former serfs) from the period of serfdom’s demise in the 1850s and 1860s. 

In addition to courses on law and capitalism, Antonov's teaching also addresses the culture of warfare, communal violence, and secret political police in Russia’s long history.


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